Jean-Luc Godard said that all you need for a movie is a gun and a girl — and of course Godard had seen several hundred hours of noir. Certainly, Black Angel satisfies Godard’s wisdom within one minute, because Roy William Neil knew what he was doing. There’s a lot of noir in that first minute of Black Angel. Darkness, shadows, the down-at-heel, a glamorous girl with a gun, and piece of music that is going to haunt everyone, right to their graves. Who or what is the Angel, though?
Black Angel, one of a few film noir to namecheck the heavenly in their titles (I'm thinking of Fallen Angel, also) also has a classy noir cast. First there’s Dan Duryea, who stars in a lot of film nor, including Scarlet Street, The Woman in the Window, Criss Cross, Too Late for Tears, Ministry of Fear and One Way Street. Then there’s June Vincent and Peter Lorre, both known to lovers of the shadowy screen, and you’ll also find Broderick Crawford, who’s in a clutch of noir himself.
Film noir is not an obvious genre, and even looking at films in the great noir cycle of the 1940s and 1950s, you’ve still got to pull apart a few elements to verify qualification. Black Angel is shot largely at night, and is a film of paranoia and suspicion. Best of all, the crime in Black Angel is a subconscious act, committed out of erotic need, and deep personal failing.
Peter Lorre made many different types of film, and directed his own, and above all he had a great time in Hollywood, which was a fine change from his peasant upbringing in Europe. Lorre tends to be underused at times in noir, perhaps because he is so perfect for the genre. The Maltese Falcon is certainly Lorre's best noir, but in this one he isn't half bad, and there is a pretty good twist concerning his character, even though the role's not his most developed.
This is really where it’s at with noir — a crime that you did not want to commit, one committed out of psychological failing, or absence of the standard moral structures. Here there are a few of these drivers combined, and the Black Angel itself is as much fate or death, as it is any of the characters.
June Vincent. She is the film noir wiflet as seeker-hero
One of the more overlooked staples of the noir canon is the idea of the empowered wiflet seeker-hero. In Black Angel, as in Phantom Lady and Stranger on the Third Floor — two other firm classics of the age — the male is imprisoned or disabled, leaving his wife to solve the crime. This is a strange reversal, believe me, because the wifelet in question in each instance finds herself in the underbelly of society, mixing with criminals, up to her neck in deceit and danger. She has to lie — she has to use talents that she has never used before — and at any moment, she could be uncovered, resulting in her house of cards collapsing into ashes.
June Vincent and Peter Lorre
So, it’s convenient, that the wife must go out in the world and make a living when the man in her life is taken away, and here she does so using siren talents that she already had, but which were previously latent and unused. Perhaps there’s a wartime metaphor here — the idea that with the men away the ladies must step up to the streets and handle business.
This is a great role for June Vincent, who sings and sirens like she could never do when she was a boring old housewife. Crime is quite a change of pace actually, with guys showing up at all hours of the night, and a great array of dangerous clubs she can now frequent.
Dan Duryea flings himself drunkenly around as the depressed musician who is so dangerous to himself and others he needs to be locked in a room when he’s on a bender. His alcoholism is seen in the wake of its damage — broken pictures, clothes and objects flung in all directions. And there’s also in Black Angel, an exceptional drunk sequence in which the world is seen through his eyes. It’s enough to rival the Marlowe-is-drugged scenes of The Maltese Falcon.
In this scene, for the viewpoint of the drunk Dan Duryea, we have wobbly wavy camera vision and blinding blackouts, and it’s certainly the most curious parts of this film. It’s these episodes that plunge Black Angel into noir, and make it unclassifiable as anything else. It’s always interesting to hear what folks think is and isn’t noir, but plumbing the depths seems to be a recurrent them in the 1940s cycle, and it’s the way that this delve into darkness is delivered that attracts the fans.
With Black Angel, Universal also atoned for a mistake it made with another Woolrich thriller, Phantom Lady, in 1944. In the novel of Phantom Lady, the revelation of the culprit was placed thoughtfully near the end of the action, but when the story was filmed in 1944, Universal decided to reveal the killer's identity to the audience from the start. In Black Angel, the killer’s identity is kept secret right until the end; in fact it could barely be a more satisfying conclusion. Still, I read that Woolrich wasn’t happy about the adaptation, as so many other things were changed — it can be hard to manage the expectations of a writer.
This is what a bunch of noir guys look like when they go to work of an evening (Black Angel, 1946)
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